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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Three Thoughts (with Supporting Subpoints) about Trump, Biden, and the 2020 Election

It's a week before the election. I cast my vote early, and very likely a large percentage of anyone who happens to read this has also. So this isn't about changing anyone's mind or convincing anyone of anything. This is just pure testimony--me stating, for myself and anyone else who cares, where I stand. Also, it's long and very navel-gazingly. So, you've been warned.

1) Donald Trump is not the worst president in American history. But he is personally corrupt, administratively irresponsible, stupidly (and often gleefully) divisive, and politically destructive (and not in any remotely productive way), plus he has promoted all sorts of policies which I profoundly disagree with. Of course I was never going to vote to re-elect him, and neither should have (or should, if any of the 14 people reading this are undecided) anyone else.

1.a) I sincerely mean that first sentence. Not only do I not believe Trump to be the worst president in American history (how to compare this whiny, ignorant, self-aggrandizing grifter and sexist jerk to the outright murderous Andrew Jackson, or the outright racist Woodrow Wilson, or the outright criminal Warren Harding?), I do not even think he's the worst president in my lifetime as an adult capable of voting in presidential elections.

1.a.1) In our present era, while presidents can be--as Trump has fully shown--personally corrupt, administratively irresponsible, socially divisive, and politically destructive, the administrative state has, thankfully (and, to be sure, only thus far--those bureaucratic guardrails and behavioral norms can't survive forever when they're disregarded as they frequently have been by our current president), for the most part effectively prevented the people who wield the executive power of the American state from fully pursuing whatever murderous, racist criminality may be on their minds. So what do I think is the worst thing that a president can, in this day and age, manage to do? How about invading another country on the basis of misleading, flimsy, or outright false information fed to you by an economic and ideological cabal whom you stupidly and self-interestedly gave complete trust to, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the wounding and traumatizing of millions, the expenditure of trillions, and ruination of whatever limited diplomatic or moral authority the American state could have wielded over roughly one fifth of the planet, prior to 2003?

1.a.2) So yes, Donald Trump is not as bad a president as George W. Bush was. Take a bow, Mr. President; you have, so far, managed not to trip over that impossibly low bar. Congratulations.

1.b) As for the rest, well, if you don't agree with me now, why would I be able to convince you? So suffice to say I think Trump is personally corrupt (see here), administratively incompetent (see here), socially divisive (see here), and politically destructive (see here). Admittedly that last one is specific to our present dysfunctional liberal constitutional order, but if you believe that his destruction is or could be a politically constructive long game which is paving the way for a better alternative in the future, I disagree there too (see here). And then there's all the ways his populist talk seems to me to have been mostly a complete sham (see here), and all the ways he's presided, when he has actually presided at all, over what seems to me mostly the same pro-business, conservative Republican agenda that I happen to fundamentally disagree with (see here), and all the ways his mixture of crudely stylized patriotism and vindictive cruelty led him to expand our already inhumane border patrol policies into what seems to me to be an immoral horror (see here). Also, I'm unconvinced that the record number of judges he's appointed will serve America well (see here), I don't see much worker-empowering upside in the trade wars he's picked with China and other countries (see here), I consider his supposed triumphs in moving the America's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to have been disruptive distractions from his general foreign policy incompetence (see here), and I'm appalled, as I think everyone should be, by his irresponsibility when it comes to fighting the covid-19 pandemic (see here). So yeah: he didn't get my vote. If he got the vote of anyone reading this, well, I'm sorry to hear it (though not surprised, I guess).

2) Like I would estimate better than 90% of however many Democrats, liberals, socialists, and other left-leaning people who ever read this, Biden was not my preferred candidate in the Democratic party's presidential nomination race. But I didn't think twice about voting for him, and I hope lots of you did too.

2.a) I'm genuinely not sure how much of a change saying that is for me. My personal history of votes for presidential candidates ever since I became eligible to vote is, at present, evenly divided between Democrats and independent or third-party left-wing challengers and symbolic candidates: Clinton (1992), Nader (1996), Nader (2000--write-in), Kerry (2004), Obama (2008), Stein (2012), Sanders (2016--write-in), Biden (2020). My argument for those votes--which I made many, many, many times over the years--was always, for all its varying details, fundamentally about contextuality. That is, every vote takes place in a specific electoral context, and that context--constructed out of, at the minimum, the candidates available to vote for, the parties which nominated them, the electorates voting for them, the calculations at work as the candidates and parties appeal to certain members of the electorate in their particular districts and states, and much more--should be respected for what it is, as opposed to pushing it aside in favor of a demanding narrative of absolute, a-contextual choice, which is so often the default conclusion of many under our two-party system. In the actual absence of such a narrative (which is as I think it should be), it seems reasonable to me to allow some legitimate place for expressive concerns of an aesthetic and moral and ideological nature as a part of one's voting decision, rather than insisting that an overriding utilitarian calculation about the democratic accumulation of power is the only thing that matters (especially when that hypothetical accumulation of power somehow has to happen in the context of a democratically-disempowering structure like the Electoral College). Anyway, sometimes all those concerns, in their varying contexts, left me feeling good about supporting the Democratic party's candidate for president with my vote; other times they didn't, and I expressed myself otherwise. So maybe this year isn't any different.

2.b) Except it is--because this year, I actually do think that the "demanding narrative of absolute, a-contextual choice" is real, so much so that, even though I know it is basically impossible to imagine my state of Kansas will delivering its Electoral College votes to anyone besides Donald Trump, I nonetheless think it's important for me to vote for a candidate that I have significant aesthetic and moral and ideological reservations about.

2.b.1) What are those reservations? Well, aside from a not-particularly-credible-but-still-nonetheless-plausible sexual assault allegation against the man--an allegation which contributed to the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization I'm a member of, deciding to issue an explicit Biden-non-endorsement--the plain fact is that Biden, unlike both other Democratic candidates whom I donated money to and wrote in support of over this campaign season, is a bone-deep institutionalist and moderate, a politician who by all accounts deeply believes that the norms of our national government, our political parties, and our liberal capitalist order, can and should be made to work as they are, rather than recognizing their essential dysfunction and supporting something new. So for the hijacked (and democratically indefensible) judiciary he advocates forming a bipartisan commission to study the problem. So for climate change he goes back and forth on fracking, unwilling to commit to either the science or politics. So for health care, and the philosophically incoherent but still sometimes life-saving mess which is the Affordable Care Act, he rejects the obviously cleaner and more coherent Medicare for All, and instead insists upon Obamacare 2.0--"Bidencare," which may set up the goal of a true public option for those desperate for health insurance coverage, but still sticks the American health care system with the same insurance-company-managed superstructure. All of which, to be sure, may involve significant improvements over the status quo--but none of which suggest any intention of aiming the executive branch in the direction of the sorts of revolutionary changes which our dysfunctional government and sclerotic socio-economic body politic truly needs. Was there any real chance that electing Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to the presidency would have resulted in anything different, all talk of revolutionary longings aside? Yes, practically speaking I actually think there was. But that chance is lost now; Biden is who will be on the ballot, and then leaves me far from excited.

2.b.2) Unless, that is, maybe Biden is actually, as has been suggested, a Konrad Adenauer figure, an old and  re-assuring and unexciting political leader who comes to power in the wake of (or, in our case, in the midst of) a devastating crisis, and exactly because he threatened no one who was invested in preserving their respective institutions, was therefore politically capable of pulling off massive institutional changes nonetheless? That's a hopeful argument! It's the flip-side of the paranoid argument advanced by those convinced that the genial, resolutely liberal Biden is smuggling into the executive branch, in the person of Kamala Harris, a Black Lives Matter socialist radical (though how anyone who read the news at all over the past year and saw all the criticism during the primaries of Harris's time as California's top cop could believe this truly confuses me). As someone sympathetic to both socialist radicalism and massive institutional change, I'd love it if either of these arguments turn out to be true. Probably neither of them will--but regardless, that's not why I said I didn't have to think twice about casting an, in Kansas, almost certainly entirely symbolic vote for Biden.

2.c) No, the reason I said what I said is that I've been convinced that my vote for Biden is, as I wrote above, only almost entirely symbolic. I do not have any confidence that my vote for Biden for president here in the state of Kansas will provide any electoral help to replacing Donald Trump as president--but I am unable to shake the possibility that my one vote, along with millions of other votes, just might provide actual popular help in making that replacement stick.

2.c.1) I actually don't believe Trump is a fascist; "incipient fascist figurehead" is the term an old friend of mine used, and I think that fits better. The fact that Trump's own narcissism and stupidity have contributed to undermining his own authoritarian tendencies is, as some have noted, no reason not to take seriously the potential threat which all his divisiveness, vindictiveness, and irresponsibility presents our political community with. This is a man who--perhaps humorously, perhaps trollingly, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps even he doesn't even know the difference--would not even unambiguously admit to respecting the peaceful transfer of power. His paranoia and resentment (particularly where President Obama is concerned) instead makes it necessary for his every engagement with that question to turn into a whining disquisition on FBI abuses, voter fraud, and other false and/or irrelevant claims which he uses to give himself cover for refusing to commit to an answer. And for all the systemic harms and flaws built into our system, to have it be ripped apart by a leader who might, just might, use mobs or the military to keep himself in office--no doubt preceded by reams of lawsuits over ballots and state election rules, all of which would quickly end up before a Supreme Court which would issue decisions on these matters in a manner that we'd have every reason to fundamentally doubt--would not result in anything that could be easily built upon in the future. Hence, everything, no matter how small, that every voter can do to affirm the Biden side of the "absolute, a-contextual choice" before us is, in this election at least, imperative in a way that I simply don't think has ever been so clear before.

2.c.2) Is this an inconsistency in my thinking? Knowing everything I do about Duverger's Law, about political socialization, about party polarization, I still do not apologize for, and still think there is a place for, thinking about presidential elections in a manner that makes space for expressing those aforementioned aesthetic, moral, and ideological concerns, and thus sometimes voting outside of the two-party system, rather than simply insisting upon making the usual utilitarian calculation between the Republican and Democratic candidates. But if I believe that, then doesn't that mean I'm in principle kind of unconcerned with the possible influence which not engaging with the existing system may somehow have on down-ballot races and other electoral contests, while in this one case I think that question of influence just happens to be absolutely central? I admit that may be an inconsistency. In my defense, though, I argue that my vote for president will, in fact, be counted and added to a total, a total that in our present context just might have some role to play in representing an actually popular repudiation of the man abusing our system, whereas in every previous context I can reconstruct in my memory, I can come up with no plausible popular connection between, say, voting for Al Gore in Virginia (where we lived in 2000) and thus making it that much less less likely that the Supreme Court would stop the recounts in Florida, or voting for Hillary Clinton here in Kansas four years ago, and thus somehow influencing one or more of 70,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to change their minds. Also, please note: while I have occasionally been tempted, I've nonetheless never once allowed my aesthetic, moral, or ideological reservations with a candidate to get me to express myself through voting outside the two-party system in local or state contests. Why? A lot of different reasons, many having to do with my ability to actually, democratically interact with local and state candidates and their relevant electorates in a way that I never could on a national scale--but mostly because democratic movement-building through the existing parties isn't short-circuited on the local or state level by the Electoral College in the states I've lived in, thank goodness.

2.c.3) So, anyway, in case anyone is confused: I reject the idea that every vote in ever election should be imagined as subject to an overriding utilitarian calculation about the democratic accumulation of power, but I do believe, in the light of the context of 2020 and President Trump's bad record and his probably unlikely but nonetheless still actually possible even worse potential, that in this election I, and everyone, ought to jump on that overriding utilitarian calculation and take it all the way to voting for Biden at the ballot box. Or in other words, do exactly what Natalie Wynn of Contrapoints tells you to do.

3) All of the foregoing has involved a piling up of arguments about our electoral system, so let me finish with this: I think everyone who can legally vote should always vote, I think as many adult citizens as possible should be legally able to vote, and I think everyone adult citizen should always vote in every electoral contest they can.

3.a) Are there too many elections in the United States, such that my above-stated belief can lead to voter exhaustion and representative cowardice? Yes. Between the ever-evolving and ever-increasing demands of campaign finance, our never-ending and increasingly unpredictable social media and 24-hour news cycles, and the transformation of political parties into something closer to polarized personality cults than machines of democratic representation, elections have frequently become warped and stressful and extreme events, providing little of the breathing room necessary for responsiveness and little of follow-up necessary for accountability.

3.a.1) Overturning Buckley v. Valeo and removing the constitutional block which that interpretation of the First Amendment placed on serious democratic arguments about the appropriate way to regulate the way money warps candidate and interest groups agendas and behaviors would be very helpful here.

3.a.2) The complete public financing of elections would be better, of course, but so would replacing our entire liberal capitalist and constitutional and electoral orders with a confederal system of environmentally sustainable, mostly autarkic egalitarian communes and ward republics which operate on the basis of a combination of direct democracy and proportional representation. But as this isn't a post about my more utopian fantasies, let's just leave that here and move on.

3.b) More particular to the whole point of this post, why do I believe that everyone should cast a ballot, even in presidential contests when the Electoral College renders millions of votes every year (though maybe not this year; see 2.c.1) essentially meaningless, at least insofar as the aforementioned utilitarian calculus regarding the democratic accumulation of power is concerned? Because, fundamentally, voting is one of the basic practices of citizenship, and being a citizen means being a member of a liberal democratic civil society, a particular kind of civil society that will not endure--which would mean the loss of all the small-r republican virtues (respectful pluralism, civil discourse, attendance to the common good) that a genuinely functioning civil society allows--without its members going through the practices. This is straight out of Tocqueville, folks. Yes, I do know, and have a fair amount of fondness for, those who reject the claims (and, true, the invariably bourgeois pretensions) of civil society in favor of forms of membership that are more radically participatory and democratic, more economically socialistic and mutualist, more truly--as opposed to merely "respectfully"--pluralistic and decentralist. I wouldn't have listed my utopian fantasy replacement of the U.S. Constitution above if I wasn't willing to admit to feeling some real affection for that more deeply communitarian alternative. But I also have a lot of affection for the ordinary bourgeois goods which our liberal democratic state has been able to provide--not always, and not to everyone, but consistently enough--to me and my loved ones and hundreds of millions of others. Therefore, if there is a way to participate in the republican practices which our civil order appears to require if it is to flourish, and there is no clear reason to believe that going through the motions of those republican practices are actually making harder the expression of mutualist, decentralist, communitarian alternatives, then I just don't see any good ethical reason not to so participate, from the most local level all the way up to the highest national one, especially when the aesthetic, moral, and ideological caveats I mentioned in 2.a) are in place.

3.b.1) One final point: is voting the only such practice? Of course not; it's not even the most important one--organizing, demonstrating, volunteering, speaking out, donating, protesting, running for office yourself: all of those are equally or more important than the vote. But if the vote is legally there for you (and it ought to be), one ought to make use of it. Doing so more fully expresses oneself as a citizen, and the republican expression of citizenship in liberal constitutional state, for all its capitalist corruption and democratic dysfunction, is no small thing--especially if it contributes, if only as a popular safeguard, to the removal of a bad man from the presidency, as I hope will happen one week (or one week-plus-however-many-weeks-of-lawsuits/demonstrations/riots/enormous-whining-from-the-con-man-in-the-White House) from today.

Vote well, everyone. 2020 has been enormously horrible; let's not add to it, shall we?

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